Inspired by the Chinese novel Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin, Chen reimagines an ageless drama as Daiyu, an impoverished orphan adopted into a wealthy household, falls in love with Baoyu, the family heir. His love for Daiyu denied by virtue of his position in the family, Baoyu is betrothed to the dutiful Baochai. Meanwhile, the childless Xifeng struggles to protect the financially profligate Jia’s from economic ruin. The family’s unique destiny is foretold by a mysterious jade found in Baoyu’s mouth at birth.
It is a powerful tale of helpless women trapped in an ancient system of concubinage, moments of happiness forged through friendship and loyalty, all members living in the labyrinthine chambers of Rongguo Mansion against the backdrop of 18th-century Bejing. From behind the glittering façade of prosperity, Daiyu is thrust into a web of intrigue and secret passions from the servant’s quarters to the Imperial Palace, until a political coup overthrows the emperor and plunges the family into poverty and the conflicts of duty, friends and survival.
Daiyu knows nothing of the layered alliances among family members in Rongguo Mansion. He is introduced to a foreign world of petty gossip, jealously and expectations, drawn to the handsome playboy Baoyu and manipulated by the sly machinations of extended family—from matriarch Lady Jia to the widowed sister-in-law of Baoyu’s father, Jia Zheng; Mrs. Xue, and her wastrel son Pan; the prim, repressed Baochai, Baoyu’s betrothed; and the clever, ruthless Xifeng, wife of Jia Lian, Baoyu’s cousin. Love and passion, while powerful, are unequal weapons when subsumed into a maelstrom of conflicting demands as the family is faced with a descent into poverty after the political coup.
Chen captures the essence of the familial struggle, the pure and unsullied intentions of newcomer Daiyu, who is woefully unprepared by her simple life in her father’s home for the challenges of ambition, wealth and the twisted knots of family ties. The mansion is like a small city, operating with its own particular set of rules and eccentricities, petty revenges and seething resentments masquerading as friendly banter. After the coup, all is upended. The rigid society behind the walls is forced to reconfigure itself in a series of small, crowded rooms, where the smells of hunger and filth permeate the once perfumed noses of the woman.
Chen’s characters are beautifully rendered, the emotional battleground of personal conflicts mined with the dictates of family ritual, the unlined public face of the clan actually riddled with fissures of discontent, jealousy and acrimony as each struggles to maintain position and dignity. Out of the complexity of these relationships, three women are the heart of the tale: Daiyu, who is never accepted by the matriarch, though true beloved of Baoyu, yet not right for the Jia family; Baochai, smooth-faced and patient, eventually betrothed to Baoyu, yet never to know the heat of his passion; and Xifeng, who runs the Jia household with brisk efficiency, feared by the servants yet vulnerable to the errors of a lonely heart.
While Daiyu and Baochai are intimately tied to Baoyu, Xifeng’s life perhaps evokes the most sympathy, ever ready to resolve family problems, yet thrown aside by those she serves so diligently. Chen has written a moving story of love gone wrong, the dangers of loneliness and one family’s struggle to triumph over daunting circumstances.